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About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Personalized Learning and Personalized Medicine (Part 2)

No more bumbling Inspector Clouseau who I introduced in the previous post (for snippets from his films, see here, here, and here). For this post, I turn to another film character for inspiration: scientist Mr. Spock on the starship Enterprise. Logical and imperturbable–see here and here— I (but without the pointed ears) copy him by comparing and contrasting Personalized Learning (PL) and Personalized (or Precision) medicine (PM).

Similarities:

*History of individualizing treatment.

In medicine, currently, the mantra repeated in medical journals, conferences, and in hospital corridors is “patient-centered” care. Within the past half-century, the explosion of technology-driven diagnosis and treatment, rising costs, and growing dismay with patients being sent from one specialist to another has led to calls for clinicians to individualize their diagnosis and therapy to the varied needs of their patients.

…. In the quest to conquer disease, the fact that the patient is a person can often get overlooked. In the predominant U.S. healthcare model, people are often treated as a collection of diseases that episodically rear their ugly head and require drastic, increasingly expensive medical interventions. Practitioners of patient-centered medicine hope to change this, focusing on the overall well-being of the patient from day one with a combination of prevention, early detection and treatment that respects the patient’s goals, values and unique characteristics.

Counter to “doctor-centered,” the individualizing of diagnosis and treatment can be traced back to Hippocrates.  But it is only in the past half-century that calls for “patient-centered” practice have become front-and-center in the debate over how to deal with chronic diseases which afflict nearly half of all adult Americans.

As for schools, historical efforts to “personalize” teaching and learning have periodically occurred ranging from getting rid of the age-graded school to varied groupings of children during a lesson to teaching machines used in the 1920s and 1950s to the technology-driven “personalized learning” in the early 21st century (see here, here, and here)

*Reliance on technology to diagnose and treat differences among patients and students.

Hospital nurses have COWs–Computers on Wheels–that they bring to a patient’s room; doctors have scribes who take down what they say to patients. And teachers carry tablets with them as they traverse a classroom while students click away on their devices.

Technologies for diagnosing and treating patients’ new and chronic ailments and technologies that assess students’ learning strengths and limitations have become ubiquitous in doctors’ suites and classrooms.

*Over-promising and hype.

From miracle drugs to miracle software, both medical and school practitioners have experienced the surge of hope surrounding, say, a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease or a quicker way to learn math.

Doctors will diagnose and treat diseases through mapping a person’s genome or by analyzing one drop of blood from a prick of the finger; childhood cancers will disappear (see here and here).

Claims that children using computers will have higher test scores and get high-paying jobs came with the earliest desktops in the 1980s. Promises that teachers will teach faster and better (see here and here) accompanied those devices then and since.

In a society where both business and government compete to provide private and public goods, where Americans are both consumers and citizens, the tension between making money and providing the best medicare care and education inexorably lead to over-promising and hyperbole.

Differences:

*In PM, analysis of patient’s DNA to find genetic disease markers (found in human genome) and then matching a specific, already tested drug matched to specific gene in patient’s genome that is connected to patient’s disease is common practice now.

In PL, no such intense and specified diagnosis of each student’s strengths and limitations currently exists. Nor are treatments for students–new curricula, new devices– tested clinically prior to use on individuals. Finally, the essential, overall knowledge and skills of a subject such as math, biology, U.S. history, or reading–analogous to the human genome–that can be targeted to the strengths and weaknesses of an individual child or youth is, in a word, absent (see here)

*In PM, individual patients do decide whether a new treatment for diabetes or atrial fibrillation should be administered.

In PL, however, adults decide on overall goals for students to reach. Both content and skills necessary to master come from state and district standards upon which students are tested to see if they have acquired both. In some settings such as problem-based instruction, students may decide what goals they want to achieve on a particular day in a particular lesson but not what they should learn overall–that is what district and state curriculum standards and tests determine.

*While in PM there is some research and clinical trials on specific therapies for particular diseases (e.g., breast and ovarian cancers), very little research (or clinical trials) for brand-name software content and skills exists currently. If anything, use of new math, reading, science, and social studies software in classrooms becomes a de facto clinical trial but without control groups.

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These are similarities and differences between PL and PM that I see. I am certain there are more than what I have listed. Readers can suggest others.

Like Inspector Clouseau I stumbled over the connection between PL and PM and, unlike the French detective, I now, inspired by Mr. Spock, have analyzed both similarities and differences in being applied to both students and patients. Thank you Peter Sellers and Leonard Nimoy!

 

 

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Personalized Learning and Personalized Medicine (Part 1)

Inspector Clouseau was the bumbling French detective (played with spirited, egotistic aplomb) by Peter Sellers in the series of Pink Panther films beginning in the 1960s and running through the early 1990s.  His incompetent investigations into crime that tumbled into chaos yet ended with miraculously identifying and arresting the culprit kept me in stitches. I experienced an Inspector Clouseau moment recently.

I had been reading about medical advances in technology since I see many parallels between doctors’ use of new technologies and teachers’. I came across a growing number of articles about “precise” or “personalized medicine.” The increasingly popular phrase  touted as the future of medicine is used by clinicians, pharmaceutical companies, and health insurers. As one would expect, definitions vary. One that captures much of what is meant by the phrase is: “customizing care to patients based on their predicted responses to treatments given their individual genetic profiles or other analyses.”

And this is where the Inspector Clouseau moment occurred. Had I stumbled over an obvious comparison between medical and educational practice that I had not considered? The answer is the Clouseauian response: “oui.”

In this series of posts, I will draw comparisons and contrasts between the practice of “personalized learning” in classrooms with the practice of “personalized medicine” as both unfold in doctors’ suites and public schools.

I begin with examples of personalized (or precise) medicine (PM hereafter) and then move to examples of “personalized learning” (PL hereafter),.

Personalized/Precision Medicine

 

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An example of PM in action

For Janice King Poulsen, 71, of Sandy, Utah, the crucial treatment match involved the “ALK” genetic mutation. Poulsen, a lifelong nonsmoker, was diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer in May 2007. That lung cancer spread to her brain. Home radon exposure, it later turned out, was the likely culprit.

Poulsen had to retire from work as a travel agent and from managing a synchronized skating program. Cancer became the priority. She went through a grueling array of standard treatments: radiation, chemotherapy, brain surgery and gamma knife therapy, or stereotactic radiation, as new brain tumors developed.

Eventually, Poulsen connected with the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. She learned she might benefit from a targeted drug called Zykadia, or ceritinib, for treating non-small cell lung cancer. Genetic testing of her tumor revealed the ALK mutation, she says – the right type for the drug.

It’s been three years since Poulsen started her precision therapy. She takes three capsules daily, with minimal side effects of nausea and diarrhea. She says she feels great. Her cancer appears to be under control.

Insurance helps pay for the expensive medication, which costs about $13,000 a month, and Poulsen’s family pays roughly $460 a month out of pocket. “Cancer isn’t cheap,” she says. In comparison, Poulsen, who now advocates for stronger home radon-testing policies, notes: “If you put in a radon mitigation system, it’s about $1,500.”

Another example:

Tania Swain got bad news: her ovarian cancer had come back. This was in November 2013; almost three years before, Swain, who is herself a physician, had been surprised by the initial diagnosis. And despite the surgery that removed 30 pounds of liquid and tissue from her ovaries, spleen, and appendix, and the chemo drugs that were swished around the space they left, the cancer was back. She feared that this time the diagnosis was truly the “kiss of death.”

But this time, Swain learned about the Clearity Foundation, a nonprofit organization that compiles its own database of mutations that cause ovarian cancer and help patients find the best individualized treatment. After another surgery in December 2013, her doctors sent a tissue sample to Clearity. “They look at the proteins and receptors, and the different ways that the tumor tissue itself has mutated to find how they can best attack it,” Swain says. Her tumor had an unusually high concentration of a protein called Ki-67, which was good news—her cancer would be more responsive to typical chemotherapy agents.

The treatment worked well—Swain felt less ill after the chemo than she had the last time. Though her cancer has since returned, she’s hopeful because she’s so impressed by the progress of cancer treatment, and advances in precision medicine in particular. “I finished my training [to become a doctor] in 1982, when CAT scans were just coming online. I think cancer treatments now are as different as night and day compared to then,” Swain says….

For Swain, the choice to get a genetic test was an obvious one. She knew it would help her find the best possible treatment, but even as a doctor she struggled to understand just what was going on in her body. “It was still a little overwhelming. All that information just comes at you,” she says. Without that treatment, however, she may not have survived; when she was first diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, in 2011, she had a 39 percent chance of living at least five more years. Now, almost five years later, Swain is hoping that this third round of treatment has finally rid her body of ovarian cancer. The genes driving her cancer have changed—“which speaks to the polymorphism of this cancer,” she says—and the drugs she’s using to kill it have changed accordingly. But she’s optimistic: “I am very happy with the status of my markers and I’m feeling good.”

 

Examples of PL in action

 

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Sitting in front of a laptop, Chris Pozo, a sixth-grade student at Truesdell Education Campus in Washington D.C., opens his Summit calendar to show his daily goals. “My goal is to do my task and get 50 percent or more,” it reads.

Like every other student using the Summit Learning platform, Pozo must start each class by setting his goals before doing activities. The goals are either typed or picked by the student from a drop-down list of options created by the teacher.

“Every morning I change it, and we type our goals right here,” explains Pozo, pointing to his screen. He then opens up an assignment on a Google Doc and a grading rubric, reviewing the comments and feedback his teacher has left on his work.

Sixth-grader, Chris Pozo, using the Summit Platform in is science class. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

When EdSurge visited Chris Pozo’s sixth-grade science class at Truesdell, the student was reviewing comments left by his teacher, Courtney Grant, on his writing assignment. He glanced back and forth between his Google Doc and the grading rubric on the right side of his screen. This is how he decides what to do to get a 4 (equivalent to an A) on this assignment.

“I have to add more transition words and make it organized,Pozo explains as I visit his class. “This is what they are going to be grading us about,” he continues, pointing to the rubric on the screen.

Another example:

Over the past two years, educators at Windy Hill Middle School in Clermont, Florida have been transforming their teaching, tailoring instruction to students’ individual needs and interests. Students have been using new tools to learn content at their own pace and taking ownership of their learning in the process. The whole school community has been building a culture of personalized learning.

As principal William Roberts describes it: “Personalized learning is considering the interests of your students, giving them choice in their learning, and meeting them where they’re at—academically and personally.” The approach appealed to the team at Windy Hill as a way they could reach all students and make their learning even more powerful. So, in the fall of 2015, a small group of teachers who wanted to try out personalized learning began piloting the approach in their classrooms.

Teachers in the pilot created units aligned with Florida’s Sunshine State Standards and with multiple pathways for students at different levels, organized around the prerequisite knowledge students may or may not have. Students worked through the unit content at their own pace on their own laptops, conferencing with their teachers and working on projects with their fellow students along the way. Teachers still provided direct instruction, but they also spent more time circulating classrooms and supporting small groups of students, or working with students one-on-one. And they reviewed their students’ data to better understand where individual students needed more support—or where they were excelling and needed more of a challenge.

The results have been encouraging. All 101 seventh-graders that participated in a personalized learning math class at Windy Hill last year scored satisfactory or above on the math portion of the 2016 Florida Standards Assessments. By comparison, only 55 percent of Windy Hill seventh-graders not in a personalized learning math class scored satisfactory or higher.

Mary Ellen Barger, a personalized learning facilitator at Windy Hill, also has seen how personalized learning can be especially powerful for struggling students. “In the traditional classroom, little Johnny is bored and doing things to distract the class because he is so afraid of being seen as behind. In personalized learning, Johnny has a goal, knows what he is supposed to learn and that he can do it, and knows how to get extra help,” Barger explains. “He knows that we are going to keep working with him until he understands.”

This year, personalized learning at Windy Hill has expanded even more. The number of teachers using personalized learning in their classrooms has grown from 14 to 47—about half of all instructional staff. And as the team continues to make the culture shift to personalized learning, they also are focusing on personalizing the curriculum in all core subjects as well as electives. Making these changes isn’t easy, but the community is dedicated to personalized learning and excited about the positive impacts. As one eighth-grader put it: “It’s beneficial to everyone.”

For other examples of how PL is used in schools, see (here, here, and here).

Like Inspector Clouseau, it took me awhile to figure out the similarities and differences    between PM and PL. Part 2 elaborates on each.

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Holding Donors Accountable

The sad story that Washington Post journalist Valerie Strauss tells about the recent RAND report on improving teacher effectiveness, an effort partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–$215 million of a half-billion dollar project–is neither the first (nor the last) failure in donor funding. After all, philanthropists take moderate to great risks in funding projects that promise high returns (as do  venture capitalists) and such ventures do fail. Here is the background story for the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching.

Based upon the extensive research of Tom Kane, professor of Economics and Education at Harvard University, the premise of the project was that a multi-measure evaluation system of teachers anchored in student test scores (and peer evaluators) would sort out “effective” from ineffective teachers of low-income students in five districts and charter school networks. Districts and charter schools would then staff classrooms with “effective” teachers–the “good” teachers–and their students, following the premise of the initiative,  would outscore similar students in classrooms with regular teachers during the six year project (2009-2015). In addition, participating districts and charter networks gave cash bonuses to teachers designated as “effective” and substantially increased professional development.

Result? Outcomes for economically poor students in those schools staffed by these designated “effective” teachers, according to the RAND report, “were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the … initiative.”

I could only guess that Professor Tom Kane was disappointed in the findings of the report. As were, again only a guess, program officers at the Gates Foundation. For donor Bill Gates, it must have been dismaying since this was another top-down, research-informed loss that the Foundation had launched to improve schools with results falling far short of what was promised (e.g., spreading technology into libraries and schools, the “Small Schools” initiative, backing Common Core standards). These top-down funding strategies have now given way to yet another Foundation effort: a $1.7 billion project aimed at K-12 school improvement announced a few months ago. More than 500 applications have poured in to get a chunk of that money that will go to local stakeholders.

Journalist Valerie Strauss classifies the RAND report documenting the Foundation’s effort between 2009-2015 to raise test scores of low-income students as an instance of “they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen….” Donors, she says should have listened to individual researchers and organizations of researchers who repeatedly criticized efforts  to evaluate teachers by  relying on student test scores (see here, here, and here).

Perhaps. Let me imagine a conference room at the Gates Foundation in 2008 before the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching was launched. In this conference room are  program officers and researchers who had provided the underpinning the experiment. Here are the exchanges that I imagine:

Senior program officer:

“The American Statistical Association and the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council have argued against our doing this project. Many researchers have written us and spoken out against using student test scores to determine how good the teachers are. How should we handle these criticisms?”

Senior researcher funded by Foundation to do studies upon which initiative is based:

“C’mon, guys, when was their ever unanimity or even a preponderance of evidence supplied by researchers on any innovative experiment? OK, that is a rhetorical question because we all know the answer: the quality of educational research ranges from poor to mediocre and even when a study is rigorous, researchers split over how the study was done and the statistical significance of the findings. So I say, plow ahead because the research we rely upon here is solid. The research we have done is rigorous and the findings we can depend upon.”

Junior program officer:

“May I say that I, too, am impressed with what studies I have examined. They do point in this direction for identifying effective teachers of low-income kids. What I worry about is what happens if the results of working with these districts and schools that have volunteered show that the students of these teachers we identified as effective did pretty much the same as poor kids in classes of regular teachers outside of our project?

We would have intervened in the district, claimed that we have identified “good” teachers, assigned them to classes of at-risk kids and nothing much happened when these kids took the state tests, compared to a group of teachers and students we did nothing with. Who is going to be held accountable for disappointing outcomes of this initiative?”

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Yes, this is an imaginary conversation that I constructed among Foundation staff and researchers in the year prior to implementation of the project.  And, yes, again, I end it with the question of who is held accountable when donors fund moderate-to-high-risk projects and the results range from disappointing to harmful.

Insiders to the donor strategy of taking funding risks have noted the issue of responsibility for outcomes.

If you agree that philanthropy should be taking big risks, you shouldn’t be too surprised by big failures. Nor should you be reflexively critical of the funders behind them, since they’re doing what we want them to do. At Inside Philanthropy, we make a point of not piling on when funders fail. If donors and foundations are kicked around too harshly for their mistakes, they’ll take fewer risks and we’ll all be worse off. 

All that said, risk taking in philanthropy needs to be approached with great care, especially in an area like public education. When risky initiatives go wrong, they can impose major costs on all involved. In the case of K-12, that means students, parents, teachers, administrators and the taxpayers who pick up the bill for failure. 

The Los Angeles Times editorial board went one step further in slamming an earlier Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative in California:

Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools. The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies

I end this post on this issue of accountability and setting the educational agenda through funding projects that philanthropists believe will make a difference in schooling U.S. children.

Lack of donor accountability

When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. Or try again. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. Donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately invention of better ways to solve it.

For those who support philanthropic giving, this unaccountability is an exercise of personal liberty and risk-taking in acting for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy. Moreover, some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”

Being society’s “passing gear,” however, assumes that funders and their retinue of experts know best how to identify educational problems, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that solve the problem. When donors bet foolishly or are simply wrong and projects and programs fail who are these funders answerable to for their errors in judgment? No one, as far as I can see.

Nothing “nasty” will happen to the Gates Foundation for their slip-ups in top-down policy making to improve schooling. At least so far. I do have a proposal, however, were foundations to awake to their responsibility for errors in policy judgment rather than shrug and walk away.

Proposal

When foundations give money to districts and schools to alter school organization, curriculum, or instruction (or all three) stipulating what districts have to do to spend donor money and what results are expected, then districts and donors should have a separate written agreement for what happens if the project falls short of achieving desired goals.  If the district has met its part of the agreement–as confirmed by an independent outside source chosen by both donor and grantee–and still the project fails according to the agreed-upon metrics to be used, the foundation would provide additional funding–no strings attached–to districts equal to the original grant.

Would this reduce risk-taking on the part of foundations? Possibly. Would it be an incentive for districts and schools to insure full implementation of the strategy and program? Yes, it would.

Were such an agreement to be struck between donor and recipient it would be a small step in the direction of foundations being held accountable for their initiatives to improve schools in the U.S.

 

 

 

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Donor Fails Policy 101 (Valerie Strauss)

Education reporter and editor for the “Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss published this piece June 29, 2018. For other views on donors’ initiatives and mishaps, see here and here.

A major new report concludes that a $575 million project partly underwritten by the Gates Foundation that used student test scores to evaluate teachers failed to achieve its goals of improving student achievement — as in, it didn’t work.

Put this in the “they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen” category.

The six-year project began in 2009 when the foundation gave millions of dollars to three public school districts — Hillsborough County in Florida (the first to start the work), Memphis and Pittsburgh. The districts supplied matching funds. Four charter management organizations also were involved: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools; Aspire Public Schools; Green Dot Public Schools; and Partnerships to Uplift Communities Schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped nearly $215 million into the project while the partnering school organizations supplied their own money, for a total cost of $575 million. The aim was to create teacher evaluation systems that depended on student standardized test scores and observations by “peer evaluators.” These systems, it was conjectured, could identify the teachers who were most effective in improving student academic performance.

This, in turn, would help school leaders staff classrooms with the most effective teachers and would lead more low-income minority students to have the best teachers — or so the thinking went. Schools also agreed to boost professional development for teachers, give bonuses to educators evaluated as effective and change their recruitment process.

The 526-page report titled “Improving Teacher Effectiveness: Final Report,” conducted by the Rand Corp. says:

Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM [low-income minority] students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP [Intensive Partnerships] initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites.

Why didn’t it work? The report’s authors couldn’t say:

Unfortunately, the evaluation cannot identify the reasons the IP initiative did not achieve its student outcome goals by 2014-2015. It is possible that the reforms are working but we failed to detect their effects because insufficient time has passed for effects to appear. It is also possible that the other schools in the same states we use for comparison purposes adopted similar reforms, limiting our ability to detect effects. However, if the findings of no effect are valid, the results might reflect a lack of successful models on which sites could draw in implementing the levers, problems in making use of teacher-evaluation measures to inform key HR decisions, the influence of state and local context, or insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.

The project began at a time when the newly elected Obama administration was supporting school reforms that used student test scores to evaluate teachers, despite warnings from assessment experts of big problems with doing so. Gates and Arne Duncan, who was education secretary at the time, were on the same page, believing that test scores were valid measures for high-stakes decisions.

The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top initiative, dangled federal funds in front of states that agreed to establish teacher evaluation systems using test scores to varying extents. And Gates funded his “Empowering Effective Teachers” project with the aim of finding proof that such systems could improve student achievement.

Some assessment experts were concerned from the start that the methods used to link student test scores to teacher evaluations were largely unfair and lacked statistical validity. Some educators noted that there were already effective evaluation systems for teachers that did not give weight to student test scores, including in Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County.

But the Gates project and Race to the Top continued, and most states adopted test-based teacher evaluation systems. In a desperate attempt to evaluate all teachers on tested subjects — reading and math — some of the systems wound up evaluating teachers on subjects they didn’t teach or on students they didn’t have. Some major organizations publicly questioned them, including the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals. And so did the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council.

But the Gates project continued. What happened in Hillsborough County is illustrative of problems that many warned about early on. Teachers who initially supported it came to realize its weaknesses. The project required district and union leaders to work together, which happened — but not for long. In 2015, Hillsborough County gave up on it, after more than $180 million was spent there. This is what I wrote in a 2015 post:

Under the system, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student standardized test scores and the rest by observation from “peer evaluators.” It turned out that costs to maintain the program unexpectedly rose, forcing the district to spend millions of dollars more than it expected to spend. Furthermore, initial support among teachers waned, with teachers saying that they don’t think it accurately evaluated their effectiveness and that they could be too easily fired.

Now the new superintendent of schools in Hillsborough, Jeff Eakins, said in a missive sent to the evaluators and mentors that he is moving to a different evaluation system, according to this article in the Tampa Bay Times. It says:

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.

Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgmental “non-evaluative feedback” from colleagues and more “job-embedded professional development,” which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by “the latest research.”

From the start, critics had warned about using a standardized test designed for one purpose to evaluate something else — a practice frowned upon in the assessment world. The Rand report affirmed those concerns and said problems with using test scores as a metric were significant:

Teacher evaluation was at the core of the initiative, and the sites were committed to using the measures to inform key HR decisions. But, as we described in Chapters Three through Eight, the sites encountered two problems related to these intended uses of the TE measures. First, it was difficult for the sites to navigate the underlying tension between using evaluation information for professional improvement and using it for high-stakes decisions. Second, some sites encountered unexpected resistance when they tried to use effectiveness scores for high-stakes personnel decisions; this occurred despite the fact that the main stakeholder groups had given their support to the initiative in general terms at the outset.

The findings revive questions about whether the country is well-served when America’s wealthiest citizens choose pet projects and fund them so generously that public institutions, policy and money follow — even if those projects are not grounded in sound research. Such concerns have been raised most often about Gates, because he is the largest education philanthropist by far, and because he was a key player in Obama administration education reforms.

Gates, though, was pushing his own ideas for school reform before Obama became president, and he has since acknowledged that none of them turned out as well as he had hoped. In 2014, he gave a nearly hour-long interview at Harvard University, saying, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

In 2000, his foundation began investing in education reform with an expensive effort to turn big dropout high schools into smaller schools, which he abandoned, writing in hisfoundation’s 2009 annual letter that the results had been unimpressive. Instead, he said he would focus on teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help create and implement the Common Core State Standards, which became highly controversial.

Now, Rand has declared his massive teacher effectiveness project to have fallen short of his goals. The Rand report does say that “the initiative did produce benefits, and the findings suggest some valuable lessons for districts and policymakers.” What lessons? Well, the report’s authors say some teachers reported learning how to improve from the observations. They also said the project had succeeded in helping schools “measure effectiveness” but not how to “increase it.” Of course, that is a loaded finding, given that there are many definitions of “effectiveness.”

Some school reformers are reluctant to say the project was a waste of time and money. They say the project taught us what doesn’t work. That ignores the fact that some education experts warned from the start that some of the premises on which it rested were not sound.

The bottom line: School reformers, led by Gates and supported by Duncan, felt the need to spend $575 million to prove their critics right.

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Remembering Career Failures

Looking back from my ninth decade, my career as an educator has been marked by many successes. But I cannot forget the failures I encountered.

I began teaching high school in 1955, a goal I had pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught 14 years on and off in various school districts until the early-1970s. During those years I participated in an innovative, district-based teacher training program that prepared returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. I also created culturally diverse curriculum materials and co-authored a series of U.S. history textbooks both of which were published in those years.

Left teaching in 1972 to get a doctorate at Stanford in history of education and in 1974 achieved my dream of becoming a district superintendent. I served seven years. I returned to Stanford as a professor in 1981 and for 20 years taught, advised doctoral students, returned to high school teaching three times, and did research and writing until I retired in 2001. Since then, I began a blog in 2009, taught seminars until 2013, and have written extensively about the history of school reform while continuing to do research in public schools. I have published many articles and books about U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts always with a historical perspective whether it be teaching, using technology, or a current reform.

OK, this is beginning to sound like a draft for an obituary. It is not.

What I want to write about is not my successes but my failures. While on the surface my long career as an educator appears as an unvarnished success albeit a modest one, it was a zig-zag path with cul-de-sacs and, truth be told, a road pockmarked with failure.

Why note failures?

Because successes in life, however defined, are built on failures that often go unnoted. The common pattern in talking or writing about a career is to deny or cover up disappointments and failures. Carefully prepared resumes are silent on mishaps. The point is that everyone’s career is marked by failures but in our competitive, highly individualistic culture, talking about failure is like talking about body odor. Not done. Failure means you are a loser in a society that praises winners.

So here I want to recount my career failures to make clear that chasing success in one’s life is anchored in confronting repeated failures. I am not the first to reveal such a list. Others have as well (see here and here).

Failures as a teacher:

*In 1955, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh as a history teacher. I applied for a post in the Pittsburgh school system where I had lived and gone to elementary and secondary schools. I was rejected because I had no experience and was told to teach in the suburbs for a few years and then re-apply. I did teach elsewhere but never re-applied to the Pittsburgh schools.

*Even though I was considered a high-performing teacher by my superiors at Glenville High School (Cleveland, OH), Cardozo High School and Roosevelt High School (Washington, D.C), between 1956-1972 I had a small number of students in various classes that I could not reach or teach well. It was obvious to me and to those students that I failed in connecting with them.

Failures as administrator:

*In 1968 while teaching at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., I was offered a post in the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights to be in charge of a research group on race and education. It was a time in the city and nation when racial antagonisms ran high in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After six months, I realized that I could not reduce the racial friction evident in the department that I administered. I had failed to make a dent in lowering tensions and achieving the stated goals of the unit. I resigned.

*In 1972, I applied for an elementary school principalship in Washington, D.C. where I had taught and administered programs for nearly a decade. I was turned down for that post.

*After receiving my doctorate in history of education and getting certified as an administrator, I applied for 51 (not a typo) superintendencies across the country. My wife and I and our two daughters were willing to go anywhere a district offered me the school chief position. I was turned down by 50 districts—the one that hurt the most was a district to which I had not even applied—until Arlington (VA)—the 51st application– offered me the post in 1974.

*In 1985-1990, as a professor, I applied for six urban and state superintendencies and while making the final cut to a short-list of three candidates, each board of education chose someone else.

*in the mid-1990s, I was a finalist for deanship at Stanford’s School of Education. Didn’t get post.

Failures in getting published: 

While occasional articles I wrote and a book were published in the 1960s,  over subsequent decades, publishers and editors regularly turned down submissions I made. At one point for a manuscript I had written on Southern migrants moving northward before and after World War I, the rejections letters overwhelmed me and I shoved the manuscript into a bottom drawer. Eventually, I threw it out.

When I began writing op-ed pieces on school reform in the 1990s, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times regularly turned down my work. The New York Times has never accepted an op-ed I wrote while the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times accepted one of every ten I submitted.

When I get requests for my resume or curriculum vitae, none of the above failures are listed.

Why is it important to talk about career failures?

 This is the point where such accounts as mine throw in a few inspirational quotes about the importance of failing. Such as:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Basketball star Michael Jordan

 Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
Winston Churchill

 You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Maya Angelou

But there is far more that is important to confronting career failures than citing maxims. Defeats were doors that closed in my face. Yet other doors opened.

There are many ways to respond to failure. For me, however, closed doors did two things. In some instances, I doubled down and persisted—50 rejections in applying for superintendent posts—in other instances, it nudged me to open doors that I had not considered–going from the failed attempt to manage a governmental research group riven by racial animosities to administering the Office of Staff Development in the Washington, D.C. schools or getting rejected for a principalship and deciding to pursue a doctorate.

Persistence and ambition are, of course, married to one another. Yes, I have been a go-getter in the early decades of my work as an educator. The cliché of “a fire in the belly” captures in large part what drove me through open doors. But it was doggedness in the face of errors and defeats, harnessed to that ambition, that help explain, at least to myself, the corkscrew path I have taken these past nine decades.

Now, that fire has been banked yet embers still glow. Looking back at my career and the mix of success and failure make clear to me how complex the interaction between wins and losses is. In remembering how failures tinged with success and successes tinted with failures have resulted in unplanned twists and turns, I remember, and smile, at an old saying:

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Asking Different Questions about Personalized Learning (Leigh McGuigan)

Leigh McGuigan worked in district leadership roles in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, He is now CEO and co-founder of Vertus High School. Addressed to Rick Hess, head of educational policy at the American Enterprise Institute, this letter appeared May, 30, 2018.

Dear Rick,

I appreciated the recent blog posts from Larry Berger, Joel Rose, and Jonathan Skolnick on getting real about personalized learning. I loved their straight talk about the challenges of “engineering,” the need to rethink classrooms, and how to get students to “eat their vegetables.” But I wanted to raise a different issue based on our experience at Vertus High School, a blended high school for at-risk boys in upstate New York. Our students arrive at our door very far behind. Most do not know basic math, cannot recognize an adverb, and have never met an engineer. But when they graduate, most will go to college, some to the military or technical training, and a few to living-wage jobs.

We have four years to prepare our students for the world they will encounter. For our boys—like for most people—success after high school will mostly require that they do things someone else’s way, on someone else’s schedule. Much of this will be boring, and very little will be “personalized.” In most colleges, they will be expected to learn what their professor teaches, in the way he or she teaches it. In their jobs, their boss will likely dictate what they should do, and how and by when they should do it. Maybe a lucky few will go to colleges that nurture their individual interests and cater to their learning preferences, and to first jobs with lots of agency to pursue interesting questions as they see fit. But not many. We have a moral obligation to prepare them to succeed in the world they’re going to actually encounter.

Of late, it seems that talk of personalization focuses on the question, “What kind of personalization will make school engaging for students?” My experience leads me to think that’s the wrong question. And I worry that much of the thinking that results when it comes to personalization approaches fantasy—or educational malpractice.

I think the more useful question about personalized learning is, “How do we personalize learning for students while preparing them for what life will actually be like after high school—which, in truth, will be largely impersonal?” Some might wave this off as a misguided concern, but I think that’s a profound mistake and a disservice to our charges. As Vertus has grown over our first few years, this tension has been central to our work.

An undue focus on “engagement” personalization risks students not building the broad body of secure, automatic knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college, and that they may not develop the self-control and grit to independently weather challenges, setbacks, and annoyances. Our students need a great deal of practice in that stuff which we might call “the basics.” We’ve found that we can’t let them just rely on their strengths or follow their preferences if we’re going to help them master those.

At Vertus, we do personalize, of course. Our students spend about half their time in learning labs completing online courses. We meet each student at their starting point, and each moves through courses at his own pace. In a self-paced environment, we learned early on that we had to provide strong incentives for making progress, as students who have not had success in school don’t have a compelling vision of the future to motivate them. We have learned the importance of giving our students explicit instruction and patient practice in how to concentrate and motivate themselves.

We also make it a point to incorporate plenty of traditional instruction. Students spend the other half of their time in typical small classrooms. The so-called “tired old model” of teaching a group of students the same thing in the same way is easy to dismiss, but it is still mainly what students will encounter after high school. In classrooms, students can learn to be part of respectful discussions and how to wait patiently while someone else’s needs are attended to. Since many of our students come to us with bad classroom habits, we’ve doubled down on fostering strong classroom cultures and student engagement. Our students use their classroom time to deepen skills in reading, writing, and math and to learn and practice the specific knowledge and skills that the New York State Regents tests require. Learning to succeed in a classroom and learning material that may not feel relevant or seem interesting are core skills in college.

Personalization done right can help cultivate self-control and self-motivation, the characteristics that students will need in the real world. But personalization done wrong risks graduating students who are ill-equipped to succeed in the real world, lack important knowledge and skills—and of doing all this because it’s trying to answer the wrong question. I hope we’re not experimenting on our students to satisfy our theologies, as they won’t get many second chances.

 

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Cartoons on Educator, Student, and Corporate Decision-making

Unlike the Garfield cartoon, everyone makes decisions. Especially educators and CEOs.

 

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This month my gallery of cartoons look at different folks making decisions in and out of education, with or without data, and similar contradictions. Enjoy!

 

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